Strib Schussman looked up at the heavy timbers overhead as his foot falls made hollow sounds on the wooden deck of the McKee covered bridge spanning the Applegate River.

Strib Schussman looked up at the heavy timbers overhead as his foot falls made hollow sounds on the wooden deck of the McKee covered bridge spanning the Applegate River.

"That Howe truss construction was very popular for these old bridges," said the upper Applegate Valley resident of the design combining diagonal timbers and vertical iron rods.

"Everyone was using that technique back then — you saw them on railroad trestles as well as bridges," he said, adding later, "It all looks in fairly good shape."

Schussman, 80, a retired aeronautical engineer who built missiles for a living, is a member of the McKee Bridge Historical Society whose aim is to maintain the bridge built in 1917.

The group and its volunteers this spring replaced deteriorating timbers on the west approach to the bridge. The price tag of nearly $12,000 just about cleared out the group's coffers. They are holding a 90th birthday bash and fundraiser for the historic bridge on June 9.

"I like old things, like keeping them in good shape," Schussman explained.

"There are very few covered bridges left now, particularly in a beautiful setting like this," added Evelyn Williams, also 80. She is a fellow society member whose great uncle Adelbert "Deb" McKee donated the land for the bridge when it was built 90 years ago.

When the bridge was constructed, there were more than two dozen covered bridges in Jackson County. Oregon once had some 450 covered bridges, according to The Oregon Book: Information A to Z. There are now about 45 left in the state.

Jackson County, which had four covered bridges until the collapse of the Wimer covered bridge spanning Evans Creek in 2003, now has three. In addition to the McKee bridge, the other two still standing in the county include the Lost Creek bridge near the community of Lake Creek and the Antelope Creek bridge, which was moved to Eagle Point and erected across Little Butte Creek.

The Grave Creek bridge in Sunny Valley is the only covered bridge left in Josephine County.

As one of Oregon's oldest surviving covered bridges, the span over the Applegate has been saved more times than a repentant sinner at a old-time tent revival.

Just a decade after it was built, the bridge was nearly wiped out by the 1927 flood, which knocked out one approach and ripped off a quarter of its siding.

Next came the first attack of wood rot on the stout timbers, resulting in a new roof and deck along with seven floor beams being installed in 1941.

Jackson County, which owns the bridge, had considered demolishing the aging bridge in the 1950s but relented after local residents insisted it be kept open for foot traffic. The bridge has been closed to all but pedestrian traffic since 1956.

Then there was a fire started on the bridge in 1960, which local residents extinguished with buckets. Flood waters returned in 1964, followed by a heavy snowfall that collapsed a portion of the roof.

Through flood and fire, the bridge's salvation came from local residents as well as the county, state and the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

In the mid-1990s, $88,000 went to the bridge's restoration in a project paid for by state lottery funds and individual contributions. The work included structural reinforcement and new cedar siding.

Since the McKee Bridge Historical Society formed in 1999, a special effort has been for the group to be self-reliant, Williams said.

"We haven't been getting county funds," she noted. "We have been self-supporting."

But with membership aging and funding getting tighter, the group hopes to inspire a younger generation to keep the bridge and its history alive with donations of time and money.

"We're trying to get more people interested in helping out," said Schussman who has built a metal donation box and installed it on the bridge. "There are just a few of us who do a lot of the work."

"We're not going to just curl up and die," Williams added. "But we could use some help by other people who care about this bridge."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at pfattig@mailtribune.com